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Extended Cut: USA's 'Political Animals'

In this week’s issue, I wrote about USA’s Political Animals, a new miniseries premiering on July 15 about a former First Lady turned Secretary of State, her family and the journalist with whom she strikes an unlikely friendship.

You can read the story here, but there was much more from creator Greg Berlanti, executive producer Laurence Mark and series star Sigourney Weaver that we couldn’t fit in the story. Read on for an edited transcript of that extended Q&A:

B&C: Was it a conscious decision to make the storyline so similar to Hilary Clinton?

Greg: It definitely was. I wanted to have a show that really had women at the center. And I wanted to write about family and politics and I wanted to write about a former First Family, I thought that was a really interesting dynamic, about a family that had been in the White House and the impact that it had on them. I was inspired somewhat by movies like The Queen and things like Primary Colors and probably something like Devil Wears Prada.

Larry: The resumes are similar, but once she asks for a divorce, she’s her own character and the story is its own story.

Greg: The last three Secretaries of State have been women. What does that say about us – two different political parties nominated them – what does it say about us as a country? Those are great questions the show gets to deal with. That seemed too appealing to not write about. And then the dynamic of her going to work for the man that she lost to, I liked that.

Larry: Women also have their own way of dealing with a dysfunctional family, a broken family, keeping a family together. Those skills might be coming in handy in fixing a country actually and in dealing with foreign affairs.

B&C: Was it always designed to be a miniseries?

Greg: Not necessarily. I wrote the pilot and went around to the premium cable networks. There were a lot of people saying who is going to want to show this show? It’s got a female lead over 30, politics in it, language. Jeff Wachtel and USA stepped and said we want to go straight to series, no pilot, want to do it right away. That was really appealing. I like a lot of the British formats that come over that do the five to six episodes. It’s sort of like in a way it can make it feel more like a six-hour pilot, in a sense, because you really have enough time to begin to know all of the characters but you can’t really dig as deep as you would like to in a 10-episode season.

Larry: The curtain does come down at the end of the sixth episode and hopefully you’re satisfied. But by the way if you’d like to bring the curtain up again, we’re happy to do it.

B&C: Who is your target audience for this series?

Larry: Anyone who has anything to do with a dysfunctional family. Which is hopefully almost everyone.

Greg: I think it’s a family show at its core. Obviously hopefully people who like shows that have a political nature to them too. But then also generationally, when you do a show like this that has people who are younger and it has Boomers at the center too, you hopefully can grab both.

Larry: It’s an ensemble show and we hopefully have something for everyone. Political junkies included, but by no means exclusively for those folks.

B&C: Why did you feel it was a good fit for USA?

Greg: They wanted to make the same show we did, and I think that was ultimately the gauge. Because I wrote it on spec, I didn’t develop it for them. It was just a matter of finding people who were of like minds and what we were trying to do, the tone and tonality of it

Larry: They embraced it from the beginning. The first episode is a 73-minute episode.

Greg: The only thing that changed from that original script is we lost f–k. There were some f–ks in it.

Larry: Not that many. But there were a few.

B&C: How familiar were you with the inner workings of the political world?

Greg: I have some friends who have come out of DC, and we have writers on the writing staff who came out of DC. For me I used scenes from behind the scenes books you read in DC about all the in-fighting. We’re not doing a show of party vs. party, we’re doing a show about party vs. itself. This thing that happens in a lot of office places where everyone is supposed to be on the same team but they’re just destroying each other and backbiting and the small-mindedness, and then hopefully someone like Elaine who kind of moves above it.

Larry: I think what’s fun for us is we get to see the people with the masks on and then we get to see them with the masks off. In that way, it resembles a reality show actually. We have more scenes in bedrooms, kitchens and dining rooms than we do in conference rooms. That’s in a way what’s more interesting, what’s going on behind the scenes.

Greg: That was what was appealing to me, writing about the personal sacrifices and the personal lives of people who are in very public situations, just the challenges that they face and the loneliness and the struggles that they face and what part of that they bring on themselves, with their own ambition, and then what part about it befalls them because they have a noble goal.

Larry: And when it comes to the boys, they didn’t sign on for this. The parents at least signed on to be in a fishbowl. It’s how that affects them, and it affects them each quite differently.

B&C: Do you see any similarities between HBO’s Veep and your show?

Greg: I just like that there’s a lot of stronger females on TV in the last year in general. Whether it’s Girls or Veep or I think what some of the networks have developed for the next season with comedy and drama.

Larry: I just hope that t proves that the world is a rich one. Both politics and journalism intersecting in Political Animals, and there seems to be an interest in these worlds.

B&C: Was it always the plan to have the series on in an election year?

Greg: It all happened really quick. We showed it to USA last November, deal wasn’t done until January, in casting until February, shooting in May, writing episodes between February and then. It was accelerated – let’s go now – because I think when you write about something that has politics in it, it can seem really dated really fast. There were stories that we wrote that have since happened actually in the press. Bud has a whole incident where he uses the word vagina on TV, and sure enough it happened. It we wrote it and then we sat on it for a year and a half it can feel really stale in a year.

B&C: Did you try to make your storylines “ripped from the headlines”?

Greg: Yes but we do it with some of the biographical stuff. So that the characters feel a little bit biographically ripped from the headlines on the surface but then when we develop them internally you realize oh they’re not at all that character, they’re their own person. Casting helps immensely with that because you have someone like Sigourney who’s so iconic in her own right, and that eclipses, you hope, her in the role you’re not thinking she’s imitating somebody, that’s Sigourney Weaver playing this character.

Larry: What’s going on in the real world is extraordinary. It allows in a weal for fiction to even be wilder than it might ordinarily be because fact is pretty wild.

B&C: This is your first TV series role. What attracted you to the project?

Sigourney: It was the material I just thought was kind of glorious. Movies these days, there are fewer movies being made. There’s a lot of wonderful movies that are inspired by other genres like comic books and stuff but you don’t really get the meat and potatoes of relationships and marriage, family, what have you characters that you get, suddenly you’re getting so much of it in cable. I think about five minutes, if I hadn’t said yes to this, about five minutes later I would have said to my agents, what’s going on in cable I can do? But in fact it happened just a little before I was woken up to the fact that that’s kind of where, if you want to make a comparison, sort of where the top chefs are now. That’s where they’re creating the best stuff, the best writing. So I’m having a wonderful time doing this kind of material. The great thing about doing something that’s episodic is you do this part of the story and then instead of going toward a defined goal you actually get to meander a little bit and get to know people, find out a lot of surprising things about them. It’s the unfolding of this saga about this family and my family. It’s been fascinating really.

B&C: How conscious were you of the Hilary comparison in playing the role?

Sigourney: I didn’t really think about it much, because after the first page, it’s so much about Elaine being who she is and to me this story’s about a woman who breaks away from her marriage, breaks away from her political career and kind of blossoms on her own without ever thinking of running for office again. She finds her footing by kind of leaving everything that she’s known for, which I feel is not Mrs. Clinton and in fact I think the series is very much inspired by all the families that have been in the White House, I think that’s what Greg Berlanti is interested in. These families in the White House, they pay a price for being in there, especially the kids. But oddly they often want to get back in there.

B&C: Was that a world that you were familiar with? How did you prepare?

Sigourney: I worked on Capitol Hill when I was in college, worked for various campaigns. I’ve been much more active in working for nonprofits and the environment and human rights and the arts since then. Elaine to me is informed by the people in my life personally who I find demonstrate sincere, inspiring leadership, whether they are men or women, and they’re not even in politics, although they’re in the world. There wouldn’t have been a lot of time to do a lot of research. With every part, Elaine is a grab bag of things, you’re constantly drawing on different inspirations. I love reading article about Mrs. Clinton. She’s such an incredible force for good I think. I admire her so much, I think everyone on the show does. But our show is not anything to do with the Clintons. Although I think Greg could not resist some of their circumstances but it’s a very fleeting inspiration I think.

B&C: Did you specifically want to do a political series?

Sigourney: No. What I’m interested in…I keep meeting these women who have been in politics in different countries. One of the things that I’ve been paying attention to is what is different when women lead, what is the energy they bring? I feel that we are more effective, my feeling is, having watched women in action all my life… we are much more practical and we are much less hung up on position and posturing and hierarchy. The reason, if I had an ulterior motive for doing the series, it would be to present that kind of leadership and to encourage it because it’s an outrage to me, all of us 51% in this country, that we have such limited representation in Washington. To present a woman who can blast through that, who’s so articulate and confident and clear and who to me epitomizes this kind of different leadership skills that’s why I did it.

B&C: Would you do a second season?

Sigourney: I think so. I think we kind of get into it, so I’m happy either way. I feel like it’s been a fabulous experience to play someone like this and then we’ll have to see. It’s pretty interesting stuff.